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Lamar of Mississippi

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

It was April in Washington. In the House of Representatives the members, the diplomatic corps, a throng of spectators, gazed with considerable curiosity at a thickset, heavily built man who had just risen to address the chair. As he stood there quietly, with long, dark hair combed straight back from a broad and high forehead, a swarthy, yet pale, face, partly obscured by a heavy mustache and beard, and big gray eyes so blazing with passion and feeling that they looked coal black, there was upon him the impress of a powerful personality,. It was Lucius Quintus Cincin-natus Lamar of Mississippi, reputed fire-eater of the late ‘fifties, author of the Mississippi ordinance of secession, typical “Confederate brigadier,” albeit actually only a colonel, still carrying about him the “odor of rebellion,” preparing to eulogize Charles Sumner, lately dead, whose very name had been for twenty years a stench in the nostrils of the whole South.

A grim sort of humor tickled the sensibilities of some who looked on. What could he say at such a time that would not be an offense against taste, or else arrant hypocrisy? “Bloody shirt wavers” were offended, even outraged, that he was to speak at all. The majority of those present prepared to endure some minutes of boredom filled with trite, perfunctory, and meaningless words. Little did any of them realize that this was a moment of significance in national history, the dawn of a new day in sectional relations, the emergence of a new national figure.

The speaker’s rich, full voice sounded over the Hall of the House. Touching lightly and felicitously upon the intellect, the culture, scholarship, and learning, the eloquence of the dead Senator, he sketched with understanding the compelling impulse which had made him the bitter enemy of slavery, the champion of Negro equality, and the advocate of amnesty for the Southern people. He paid tribute to the honest conviction and magnanimous spirit which had moved Sumner “to propose to erase from the banners of the national army the mementos of the bloody internecine strife, which might be regarded as assailing the pride or wounding the sensibilities of the Southern people.” “That proposal,” he added, “will never be forgotten by the people so long as the name of Charles Sumner lives in the memory of man. But while it touched the heart of the South, and elicited her profound gratitude, her people would not have asked of the North such an act of self-renunciation.”

Continuing, he spoke with feeling of the devotion of the Southern people to the cause of the South and their just pride in their heroism in war, of their respect for the martial spirit of the North in preserving the Union and for their devotion to the cause of human freedom, and added: “They do not ask, they do not wish the North to strike the mementos of her heroism and victory from either records or battle-flags. They would rather that both sections should gather up the glories won by each section; not envious, but proud of each other, and regard them as the common heritage of American valor.”

Regretting that he had never met Sumner and thanked him for his gracious act, he pleaded for frankness between the sections, for the conquest of the estrangement between them. “Bound to each other by a common constitution, destined to live together under a common government, forming unitedly but a single member of the great family of nations, shall we not now at last endeavor to grow toward each other once more in heart, as we are already indissolubly linked to each other in fortunes?” He did not believe that animosities, permanent and unconquerable, survived; he saw rather the seeming of a constraint which each hesitated to dismiss. “The South—prostrate, exhausted, drained of her lifeblood, as well as her material resources, yet honorable and true— accepts the bitter award of the bloody arbitrament without reservation, resolutely determined to abide the result with chivalrous fidelity; yet, as if struck dumb by the magnitude of her reverses, she suffers on in silence. The North, exultant in her triumph, and elated by success, still cherishes, as we are assured, a heart full of magnanimous emotions toward her disarmed and discomfited antagonist; and yet, as if mastered by some mysterious spell, silencing her better impulses, her words and acts are the words and acts of suspicion and distrust.

“Would that the spirit of the illustrious dead whom we lament today could speak from the grave to both parties to this deplorable discord in tones which should reach each and every heart throughout this broad territory: ‘My countrymen! know one another and you will love one another.’ “

As he spoke the noises of the great hall had hushed. The stillness became electric, oppressive. Men—cynical politicians and war-scarred veterans—wept without attempt at concealment. Tears even ran down the cheeks of Speaker James B. Blaine. “Those who listened sometimes forgot to respect Sumner in respecting Lamar.” He finished; there was a pause of silence; and then a wave of applause which rocked the hall. “My God!” explained Lyman Tremaine of New York to “Pig Iron” Kelley of Pennsylvania, “What a speech! and how it will ring through the country!”

Few, if any, congressional utterances have ever so rung through the country. Almost every newspaper printed it in full and gave it elaborate comment, with few exceptions enthusiastically approving. Blaine, his pulse once more at normal, might say some years later with some cynicism, “It was a mark of positive genius in a Southern representative to pronounce a fervid and discriminating eulogy upon Mr. Sumner, and skilfully interweave with it a defense of that which Mr. Sumner, like John Wesley, believed to be the sum of all villainies,” but the rank and file who read it, saw further behind it, and marked the speaker with their confidence.

It was a confidence deserved, for whatever mental reservations Lamar may have had concerning Sumner, the speech was the outpouring of a passionate conviction, arrived at years before, that national welfare demanded the cessation of sectional misunderstanding and strife; that the sole hope for the future of the South lay in promoting conciliation to the point that a Southern man could get a hearing in Congress and in the North. He had thought and dreamed of such a day; had longed for the coming of a leader who might achieve this lofty aim. “He indeed would be a patriot and benefactor,” he had written two years before, “who could awake them from their profound egotism with effective command: ‘My countrymen, know one another!’ For then Nature herself with her mighty voice would exclaim, ‘Love one another.’”

He had been tremendously moved by Sumner’s battle-flag resolution, and he recognized George F. Hoar’s invitation to participate in the memorial exercises as the opportunity of a lifetime “to set an example of lofty generosity and forgiveness, to lift up standards of peace and justice.” I never in my life,” he wrote his wife the next day, “opened my lips with a purpose more single to the interests of our Southern people than when I made this speech.” He expected criticism in the South—far more, indeed, than he received—but held passionately his expressed conviction, “It is time for men to serve the South and not to subserve her irritated feelings, natural and just as those feelings are.”

And, in the expressive phrasing of the Illustrated American, “from the hour of the Sumner eulogy until the hour of his death, Lamar meant to the South the voice that settled faction, restored constitutional right; to the North the intellect that had permeated the darkness of Northern doubt.” How greatly Lamar had dared and how narrow was the margin of safety, was chucklingly expressed by Allen G. Thurman, who went with him to a circus a day or so later. A woman on a flying trapeze suddenly screamed, and losing her hold, to the horror of the spectators, flew through the air across the tent, only to catch another trapeze and continue the act.

“Lamar, that reminds me of you.” “How so?”

“About your speech, you know. You caught all right; but if you had missed, you’d have broken your neck.”

The Sumner speech riveted notice upon the man who was to contribute more than any other one person to softening sectional bitterness, but it was, after all, only one of a long list of things which contributed to give him clear title to be known as “The Pacificator.” And the explanation of them all lies in the fact that he was the first political leader, North or South, to be reconstructed, to become truly national. Without regret or apology for his past, sincerely believing himself and his cause to have been right, without temporizing or compromising, a fighting leader, bold, relentless, and with a tongue of flame, he accepted the results of the war and set himself to the task of promoting peace and justice to all. In the words of Judge Arnold, he knew what seemed forgotten then, “that men may differ in politics, and yet be patriots; differ on questions of constitutional right, and yet be honest; differ in matters of religion, and yet be Christians.”

Lamar had already had an interesting career. Born in Georgia in 1827 of a distinguished family, educated at Emory College and admitted to the bar before he was of age, he had followed to Mississippi that unique individual, Judge Augustus Longstreet, whose daughter he married. There he was a professor in the state university, practiced law, ran a plantation, and was elected to Congress for two terms where he gained a reputation for eloquence, “impetuous, scholarly, and defiant,” and a classification in the minds of his Northern colleagues as a fire-eater. Passionately Southern, he saw faults on both sides in the sectional struggle, and longed for “one true man, who will present the whole controversy in its true light—who rising above the passions and prejudices of the times will speak to both sections in a spirit at once tolerant, just, generous, human, and national.” Replying to William Kellogg and Thaddeus Stevens, he made a witty, clever speech in which he defined his own position. “For one, I am not a secessionist, per se, I am too devoted to the Constitution of the Union, and as long as this republic is a great tolerant republic, throwing its loving arms around both sections of the country, I, for one, will bestow every talent God has given me for its promotion and its glory. . . . When it is violated, when its spirit is no longer observed upon this floor, I war upon your government, I am against it. I raise then the banner of secession, and I will fight under it as long as the blood flows and ebbs in my veins.”

He was a delegate to the Charleston Convention, and rather unwillingly withdrew with his colleagues. He then planned to serve out his term in Congress and return to teaching, but upon Lincoln’s election he resigned, sat in the secession convention of Mississippi, and was elected to the Confederate Congress, but preferring military service, became lieutenant-colonel of a Mississippi regiment. The first of a long series of apoplectic seizures, one of which thirty-two years later was to cause his death, interrupted his military career, but he saw service in the Peninsula campaign, and refused an offered promotion to brigadier-general. Illness retired him once more, and upon his partial recovery he was appointed commissioner to Russia and had reached London when he learned that the nomination had not been confirmed. Returning, he again entered the army, where he remained until the end of the war. He then returned to the practice of his profession, served as professor at Mississippi until it was “Radicalized,” and was silent on political questions for five years.

He was, however, increasingly concerned at the Southern situation. Reconstruction had been marked by neither wisdom nor magnanimity, and he finally came to the conclusion that it was the duty of every honest man, secessionist or not, to take part in politics. He was disgusted with political parties. “I have not merely lost confidence in them,” he wrote in 1872; “they fatigue my contempt.” Not interested in the Greeley candidacy, when talk began of sending him to Congress he did nothing to encourage it. He was still under disabilities, had a growing practice, and was happy. Did he owe it to the South and to his state to disturb the peace that was his? With genuine reluctance he came to an affirmative answer and was elected with much Republican support. His disabilities were at once removed, and once more he took his seat in the House.

During the months which preceded his taking his seat, Lamar thought deeply and finally arrived at the philosophy which thereafter guided his public course. “The only course I, in common with other Southern representatives, have to follow, is to do what we can to allay excitement between the sections, and to bring about peace and reconciliation. That will be the foundation upon which we may establish a constitutional government for the whole country, and local self-government for the South.” Never compromising on principles, standing always committed to justice, he would lose no opportunity, even at the risk of losing the support of the Southern people, “to convert their enemies into friends, and change bitter animosities into sympathy and regard.” His one great purpose was to reconcile the North and the South — to win not forgiveness so much as forgetfulness of the past.

It was no easy task to which he set himself. William Preston Johnston pointed out one angle of difficulty when he said that at the time Lamar entered the House, it was still the correct role for Radicals to perform on the floor the melodrama of “The Rebellion Crushed,” with immense applause. Daily there was compelling proof of the accuracy of General Winfield Scott’s prophecy of 1861, that it would take “several generations and all the conservatism of the nation to quell the fury of the non-combatants—after the war is over.” But in the midst of “flaunters of the Bloody Shirt,” sneering and captious Bourbons, over-sensitive, unrestrained, and high-tempered Southerners, he preserved his calm and poise, going forward always towards his great goal.

He was admirably suited for the role he played. “On one side he was all sentiment, flowery, speech, warm impulse; on the other, shrewd, cautious, far-sighted, and alert.” Thought by many to be an indolent dreamer, he saw everything. When he spoke, which was not frequently, he was always courteous and fair, never lost his temper, and displayed in what he said the power of a remarkably analytical and philosophical mind. Matt Carpenter, not biased towards any Southerner, said of him, “He never touches a topic that he does not exhaust it,” and in none of his speeches was there “lament for the irrecoverable past.” An enemy of “bloody shirt waving,” he was hostile to speeches intended to “fire the Southern heart.” He set himself sternly against mistreatment, and favored the execution of the Reconstruction amendments. His mind was turned to the future.

“I belong to that class of men who were secessionists,” he declared in his speech, “Misrule in the South.” “Every throb of my heart was for the disunion of these states. . . . But, sir, that conception is gone, it is sunk forever out of sight. Another one has come in its place. . . . It is simple in its majesty and sublime in its beauty. It is that of one grand, mighty Republic upon this continent, throwing its loving arms around all sections, omnipotent for protection, powerless for oppression, cursing none, blessing all.”

His speeches had great beauty and power of expression and the timeliness which goes with extempore speaking, and, after the Sumner speech, the news that he was to speak packed the galleries. And when once or twice he had turned upon an adversary and displayed his fighting resources, his every word was heard. Other Southerners might fail to get a hearing, but Lamar never did. And the South, for the first time since the war, had its case adequately and fully presented. It was his achievement to develop a public sentiment in the North that made President Grant afraid to keep Governor Ames in power in Mississippi by the use of Federal troops, and laid a foundation of popular support for the Southern policy adopted by President Hayes two years later.

He was promoted to the Senate in 1877 and assumed there a place of even greater influence than he had had in the House. There he voted against the Matthews resolution to pay national bonds in silver, and against the Bland-Allison Bill, in the latter case defying resolutions on instruction passed by the Mississippi legislature, which retaliated by passing a resolution thanking Blanche K. Bruce, his colored colleague in the Senate, for his affirmative vote. Ben Hill of Georgia joined with Lamar in opposing these measures, saying that while he had done his best to make the bondholder who purchased at sixty cents lose the sixty cents he gave, he was now for giving him the dollar he was promised.

F. A. P. Barnard, by now president of Columbia, wrote Lamar: “What an astonishing thing that the best statesmanship, and almost the only statesmanship, we now have is furnished by the South, and that the truest friends of the Union are those who honestly tried once to get out of it.”

Reference has been made to Lamar’s occasional rending of an opponent. Two such happenings attracted wide attention.

The first grew out of his invariable habit of going to the defense of Jefferson Davis whenever he was attacked. In March, 1879, Senator Hoar offered an amendment to a Mexican War pension bill, excluding Davis from its benefits. After a brief and passionate tribute to Davis, Lamar protested against affixing upon an aged and feeble man an epithet of odium. “Sir, it required no courage to do that; it required no magnanimity to do it; it required no courtesy. It only required hate, bitter, malignant sectional feeling and a sense of personal impunity. The gentleman, I believe, takes rank among the Christian statesmen. He might have learned a better lesson, even from the pages of mythology. When Prometheus was bound to the rock, it was not an eagle, it was a vulture that buried his beak in the tortured vitals of the victim.”

“As he said,” so runs a contemporary newspaper account, ” ‘It was not an eagle,’ his arms were thrown up, and the curving swoop of the king of birds was described in the gesture ; and as he hissed out, ‘It was a vulture!’ the right arm straightened out, and the index finger pointed at Hoar.”

The other Senator who received with greater damage the vials of Lamar’s just wrath was Roscoe Conkling, the bully of the Senate, whose tactics Lamar had watched with growing anger and disgust. Deliberately he “laid for him.” In June, 1889, his opportunity came. Without just cause, and in a speech abounding in insult and insolence, Conkling charged the Democratic majority, and Lamar in particular, with bad faith. Lamar obtained the floor and calmly disproved the charge, and then added: “It is not my habit to indulge in personalities, but I desire to say here to the senator that in intimating anything inconsistent, as he has done, with perfect good faith, I pronounce his statement a falsehood, which I repel with all the unmitigated contempt that I feel for the author of it.” Conkling was utterly amazed and, in Lamar’s words describing the scene, “rattled.” “He lost his head and howled like a wounded animal.” After pretending that he had not heard Lamar, he resorted to a tu quoque argument and said that if he understood him correctly, only the fact that they were in the Senate prevented his denouncing Lamar “as a blackguard, as a coward, and as a liar.”

Lamar’s rich voice rang out: “Mr. President, I have only to say that the Senator from New York understood me correctly. I did mean to say just precisely the words and all that they implied. I beg pardon of the Senate for unparliamentary language. It was very harsh; it was very severe; it was such as no good man would deserve and no brave man would bear.”

Conkling avowedly had no moral objections to dueling, and the common expectation was that he would either challenge Lamar or else attempt to inflict personal chastisement upon him. Neither thing came to pass. Conkling only thereafter avoided speaking to Lamar, on the floor or off of it.

Lamar, who was the most peaceful of men, was greatly relieved at this outcome, but the incident strengthened the popular belief that he was still a fire-eater and he was sometimes troubled by allusions to it. Senator Conger of Michigan once sneered at him on the floor for his fighting proclivities. Lamar ignored it at the time, but stopped at Conger’s desk the next day and said:

“Conger, you are always talking about fighting, but never fight. That’s where you and I are a good deal unlike. I don’t talk about fighting, but I am ready for it at any time.”

Conger thereafter belonged to the group who kept silent in public on the subject of Lamar.

Lamar supported Bayard for the Democratic nomination in 1884, but Cleveland appointed him Secretary of the Interior. There was some attempt by the Radical bloody shirt wavers to prevent his confirmation on the alleged ground of “apoplexy and absent-mindedness,” but it failed. The appointment by Hayes of an ex-Confederate soldier to the Cabinet had broken the ice, and, besides, Lamar was strong with the country.

He made an excellent administrator, was a strong supporter of the merit system, and so far dropped his indolent habit that he was the first man in the department to reach his desk. Fears that he would hamper the pension system so far as it touched Union soldiers disappeared when he appointed General John C. Black to head the pension bureau. He won commendation by economies he instituted, beginning with giving up a carriage and horses provided out of public funds, with seven drivers furnished from the employes of the Interior Department. Only once did he provoke sharp criticism. When former Secretary Jacob Thompson died, he ordered the department flag to be placed at half mast, and, as Thompson was particularly execrated in the North, there was a good deal of hostile comment.

But Lamar was not happy in the Cabinet. He did not like routine administration—it probably cramped his style too much—nor did he like the confinement. He was really anxious to get back into Congress, or at least out of office. The opportunity came in 1887 when Associate Justice Woods of the Supreme Court died and the President offered him the position.

But serious opposition to confirmation developed. No Confederate had as yet ascended into that holy of holies, the Supreme Bench, and to the Radicals Lamar seemed to represent “everything that was bad in the past, dangerous in the present, and menacing in the future history of the country.” Objections were raised on the score of age (with one exception he was the oldest man that at that time had ever been appointed to the Court), health, and lack of experience. He was accused, too, of bitter partisanship. But the real opposition was sectional and that was clearly recognized all over the country. There was a political angle as well. It was thought to be good Republican politics to reject him and thus arouse sectional feeling for the campaign of 1888.

The Senate committee delayed more than a month before presenting its unfavorable report, and in the meantime, in order to relieve the President and the Senate from any embarrassment, Lamar resigned his post in the Interior Department. The next day Senator Stewart of Nevada published a letter giving the reasons why he had determined to vote for confirmation. Lamar’s rejection he thought would be a declaration that his Confederate service disqualified him and others in the same position for a place on the Court. “It is unreasonable to expect,” he continued, “that the people of eleven States of the Union shall, during all the present generation, be excluded from participation in the judicial determinations of the highest court of the United States.” And with one other Republican and one Independent he voted for and secured confirmation.

All the justices of the Supreme Court at this time had been appointed by, Republican presidents, and all save Justice Field were Republicans. He had been one when appointed by Lincoln, but was now popularly classed as an Independent. All had been political partisans when appointed, which made that particular charge against Lamar rather absurd. They welcomed him warmly and gladly, and as time passed valued him increasingly.

He was on the Court only five years, and for a part of the time his health was failing rapidly. He was happy there. The atmosphere was in every way congenial and he worked hard. His opinions were able and well-reasoned, marked by scholarship, careful study of principles and precedents, and sound judgment. His most notable one was a dissent in the Neagle Case which displayed in striking fashion his courage, his calm temper, and his devotion to the Constitution. And when he died in 1893 he had rounded out in a finished way his work of pacification. In Cabinet and Court he had silenced sectional criticism, and the later elevation of former Confederate soldiers to both roused no hostile comment. In 1895 Confederate soldiers were made eligible for commissions in the United States army, in 1898 the last of the disabilities were wiped away by act of Congress, and in 1910 a Confederate was appointed to the high office of Chief Justice of the United States by a Republican President. Reunion, for which he had so long striven, was at last achieved.


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